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Rethinking Islamism I: Turkey -- friend or foe?

Never do we stop to ask precisely what we mean by Islamism.

Turkey has been in the news after nine of its citizens were killed by Israeli armed forces on the Gaza flotilla, and will continue to be so, especially if its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sails to Gaza himself, as reports from Lebanon say he will.

It attracts our attention intermittently, this strange state on the edge of Europe about which we can never quite decide: is it a democracy emerging from the shadows of decades of brutal, military-dominated rule, a la Midnight Express, or a faltering beacon of secularism in danger of being snuffed out by resurgent Islam?

We have a sense that it matters, a truth that sage voices remind us of, although not frequently enough. As long ago as 1987 the historian Bernard Lewis was warning, in a paper delivered to a symposium held by the then pope, that "much will depend, for the future attitudes both of the Turks and the other Islamic peoples, on the treatment accorded to [Turkey's] application" for full membership of the EU. (The paper is published for the first time in Lewis's new book, Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East.)

That Turkey's application has been stalled for years, partly because of antique fears about Mussulman hordes - the lifting of the Siege of Vienna in 1683 still evidently too recent a memory for amity to flourish - is evidence of the suspicion with which the country is viewed. But the stumbling blocks are not quite what they were. Officially, the line originally was that Turkey had to improve its human rights record; it had to be nicer to its Kurdish minority; and there was the small matter of whether the Ottoman massacre of Armenians in the First World War constituted genocide or not.

That these may seem quite enough to be getting on with is highly convenient for those who do not want Turkey in the EU at any point, whatever progress it makes towards meeting the conditions laid down by Brussels. For the suspicion now is that the country is turning into the "wrong" kind of democracy. Europe never had a problem with the Ataturk-style secularism that Turkey's generals rigidly guarded for so long.

But it failed to make the link between the two, just as Bush and Blair saw no connection between the secularism of Saddam's Iraq and the fact that it was a Baathist regime. In both countries recent free elections have shown that voters are irritatingly fond of religiously-inclined parties which are happy to operate within a democracy, but are less enamoured of the adjective "liberal" that the West assumes should precede it.

It was obvious even before the invasion that Iraq was going to end up exchanging one form of nightmare for a succession of others. Turkey, however, was not expected - not meant - to elect an explicitly religious government that has formed a warm friendship with Hamas and enjoys cordial relations with Hezbollah. Don't they know those are the bad guys?

However often it is qualified, however much the moderation of the ruling AKP is stressed, the insurmountable problem is that the party is Islamist. This has become a very bad word indeed, even before you even think of adding that which frequently partners it, namely "terrorism".

Okay: I understand why. Islamists want to set up a worldwide Islamic state, goes the train of thought - and they'll settle for individual countries while they're waiting for global domination. These states will obviously be theocracies - think Iran! think Saudi Arabia! think Taliban! - in which no one will be allowed to have a drink, women will have to wear burqas all day, beard-measuring will become a profitable mode of employment, and hand chopping will be introduced into the criminal justice code. Or something like that.

Never do we stop to ask precisely what we mean by Islamism. I think that's worth doing anyway, but especially so given that if every Middle Eastern country held free elections - which we want them to do, don't we? - we would almost certainly see rather a lot of Islamist parties doing rather well, thank you.

As this is the first post of what will be a short series on Islamism, I will draw this introduction to a close here but will end with this thought. If we are so fearful of the term Islamism that we do not begin to examine it, cannot see the multiplicity of different forms it might take, and cannot countenance any such ideologically coloured government being a full ally, still less a member of the EU, then we have already discounted as foes several ruling parties - and there will be more - who could conceivably be friends.

It would seem strange, and counter to our own interests, to start that list with Turkey, a fellow member of Nato and a country whose trajectory ought to be a cause for hope, not concern.